The Chronicles of Misty
Hairdresser Malcolm Edwards has worked with some of the most talented photographers of his generation. Known for his fantastical and theatrical work, his creations can be seen across the catwalks and most notably in his extraordinary editorial work with photographer Tim Walker.
Interview Maxine Leonard
I first met Malcolm when I was assisting. I watched him from afar: a Viking of a man, a force of nature, who produced work that was extraordinary. I had the privilege of working with him years later. He showed me what working as a team truly meant. When I spoke to Malcolm on the phone he told me about a little a boy he knew growing up in Glasgow who loves to escape and retreat to his bedroom where he performs to Abba. He asked Malcolm to make him a wig. These sentiments represented Malcolm, a man whose reality is escapism and creating another universe through his craft, which has impacted on the fashion world. These words are a personal journey for the next generation.
Growing up in Glasgow, was there a tendency to seek distraction and relief from the reality in the 1980s?
I grew up 20 miles south of Glasgow and it’s exactly why I got into the business. It was a rough neighbourhood and the factory years so it was really depressing and there was mass unemployment. We lived on a new-build estate but even so, your reality became very bleak very quickly. Puberty saw me go from being a little kid to this giraffe freak wearing eyeliner. My first sense of escapism was Blitz magazine, i-D and The Face – I was blown away! Part of my countdown was to when I could dye my hair. I always noticed blonde hair and that was a way of getting out of the purgatory that was being ginger. Society learns to deflect difference, to avoid quirks being noticed.
What does escapism mean to you?
I think we all need it. It’s a thing we all do whether it’s subliminal or not. I think you can use your creativity to aid your escape. Some of the most magical things creatively can come from that realm. Music and art took me to other places and I think it is what fashion should do. I was particularly drawn to the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. His paintings have an out-of-this-world quality to them and his individualistic style inspired me. The Garden of Earthly Delights was beautiful to me for its insight into humanity’s desires and deepest fears. The first time I saw Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography I was frozen to the spot. There’s something about his light. It’s somehow detached. The shock of his imagery, given the extreme subject matter, felt poetic and I realised then that my relationship with this image was an acknowledgement that I was different from those around me.
I think these are exciting times because my generation was reactive to Margaret Thatcher and today is similar to that era.
Fantasy helps us flee from the present. We’re sat in your studio – does this space represent that for you?
This is a haven. It’s crucial for my existence as an artist. It’s my getaway, it’s my gaff. This studio is 25 years’ accumulation of hair. I can’t call this an atelier – it’s a very French thing, doesn’t sound right in a Scottish accent. I love the location, in this part of London. There are stone masons, butchers and men walking around in hard hats while I’m inside making wigs and prepping for shoots. I want to be fed creatively and this studio represents that. I have boxes of spray paints, latex, plastics and clay – it’s not just using hair, it’s using any medium to create and I love that. My studio is very organised but I’m the creative chaos in my organised space.
Is your work affected by politics?
I think so, and personal politics – me reacting to the space around me. The seeds of punk, all those tribes, every music movement has been reactive. I am excited to see what’s going to happen because you couldn’t have written the last few years – it’s a mess!
And you see that change affecting the industry?
I hope so. I think there’s a new process whereby there are a lot of new photographers who can shoot great individual pictures. Things feel more scattered and random these days. It’s the new way. I respect that people are different. I’m coming from a different era. Are these kids desensitised though? I’m interested in what’s going on. There’s a different rhythm. You can’t really gauge how it’s going to be because we’ve never had as many ingredients for the cake. There’s an array of flavours going on like never before and all you can do is pick your own ingredients and bake your own cake. I think these are exciting times because my generation was reactive to Margaret Thatcher and today is similar to that era.
I love contradictions in people, complex things that aren’t what they seem. Hidden rooms with more going on under the skin.
Editorial should engage with fantasy but commerce has had an effect on how we all work. Why do you think this has happened?
Stupidity. The balance between art and commerce. When I gravitated to making magical moments that would be frozen in time, commerce had fuck all to do with it and I think the state of play now is a direct link to that, the balance has changed. Instead of brands fighting to be in magazines because it gives them kudos, now magazines are becoming brands’ bitches. Being a stylist must be so frustrating. It’s back to front. I don’t like it at all. Giving the power to the designers started when you couldn’t mix credits, then you had to photograph full looks. We went from supermodels to grunge to celebrities and then reality stars – a new cyber world. There was a point at the start of my career when I planned to go travelling and step away but Katy England asked me to assist on the McQueen show. Val Garland was doing make-up and I ended up staying and getting an agent. We still collaborate and work well together. Some of the best juices come from being able to tell each other. Someone you trust. A one-liner can kill something, that’s why you need fresh eyes. You’ve gotta have balls to collaborate properly, it’s not all sugar and spice. If you want the sugar you’ve gotta take the shite – all the ‘s’ that comes with it.
Who are your heroes?
David Bowie and Frida Kahlo. Kate Bush used to transport me to pretty places and she would set my imagination alight.
The industry is a dichotomy to me. It creates a platform for artists to create but there are boundaries and unspoken rules we have to adhere to. How do you work around these expectations in place?
I think the way I’ve dealt with that is not to get carried away by the validation of others. You have to understand that this is built on rejection. I’ve been hot and I’ve been not, I know both sides of the coin. Nobody likes to be on the not side.
Have you seen yourself change when you are on the hot side?
Whether you like it or not, we’re human and we all get charmed when we are validated.
You have to understand what the machine is: the most important validation is to try to be yourself. I think that resonates in a different way, and there are people that have that. Lisa Butler, Val Garland, Sam Bryant and Mark Carrasquillo are artists I love working with for that reason. To give a fuck is to stifle your creativity.
Do you set yourself boundaries?
I try not to. I won’t do something I don’t want to do to follow the crowd. Being true to yourself is important. I feel like bizarrely I had a better grasp when I was younger and I want to go back to those roots, freeing myself of any expectations.
I love contradictions in people, complex things that aren’t what they seem.Hidden rooms with more going on under the skin.
Are you a feminist?
I’m a bit uncomfortable with labels. Women should be empowered. I think it gets crossed with sexuality. Sex is still a taboo subject. I love forward-thinking women. When women have that power and self-awareness, there’s nothing sexier. I believe in equality.
What would be a release for you?
Dancing, darling. I’ve got the moves of a fat bird – I can put it down. Actually that’s something technology has affected. Everything is online. This generation have lost that moment of looking at each other on the dance floor. What if they can’t dance? If you dance really well with someone and you’ve got it going on and you get your tongue in their bits, it’s all going to be good.
That should be our positive ending to this conversation. Is humour important to you?
Totally. If it makes me laugh, it’s in. It’s like an auto-response. I need to chuckle. It brings me joy. I don’t take myself that seriously, I don’t like too much focus on me.
What is beautiful to you?
Kindness and vulnerability are endearing, magical moments. A masculine man crying can be beautifully moving. I love contradictions in people, complex things that aren’t what they seem. Hidden rooms with more going on under the skin. And then there’s always a ten-inch cock… We’ve ranted and rambled.